The invisible man who changed the world

meets Michael Young, the York Graduate whose modest vision, courage and diplomatic brilliance brought an end to apartheid in South Africa

Michael Young Photo: Sam Newsome

Michael Young Photo: Sam Newsome

On 11th February 1990, as the release of Nelson Mandela marked the beginning of the end of apartheid in South Africa for the millions watching across the globe, a group of men at a secret location in Somerset were more euphoric than most. For sure, it was them who had ensured that his famous walk would happen.

Present was ANC representative Thabo Mbeki, a terrorist in the eyes of the South African government, who sat beside Prof. Willie Esterhuyse, a reformist academic who was briefing the South African secret police; the country house was owned by Consolidated Gold Fields, a British mining firm.

At the centre of these formerly irreconcilable antagonists was Michael Young, a man whose vision defied the laws of diplomacy and brought them to a friendship and compromise that would ultimately overthrow one of the most deplorable systems of human rights abuse.

Until now, with the release of the film Endgame which charts this extraordinary process, his selfless and unheralded story was known only to very few who were privy to those clandestine Somerset negotiations.

End Game

End Game

For four years, Young brought together two sides of the South African equation that were not able to engage with each other. The ANC had a policy of aggression, and diplomatic talks with the Government would be seen by party insiders as weakness. The South African Government, in turn, denounced the ANC as terrorists, and as such refused to talk until their bombing campaign ceased.

Despite this stand-off, Young put his career and his personal safety on the line, to bring together the two sides and work towards a workable solution. “This was my crusade,” he admits. But Young has never revelled in his momentous achievement. In fact, he prefers to remain – as in Somerset – the organiser in the background, an invisible man who changed the world.

Instead, Young’s praise for the South Africans, and in particular Thabo Mbeki, is unreserved. “I’ve worked with lots of political people in my life, but Mbeki was outstanding,” he says. “In a class of his own, and I’m not easily impressed. This is a guy who knows the world, who’s fleeing from secret police, who was alive to the way the world works. Thabo is rightly portrayed in the film. He is without doubt a giant.”

Similarly, Young describes Prof. Esterhuyse as “a remarkably broad man. He’s avuncular in a hugely intelligent way. He was riddled with guilt about the most awful thing that he had participated in, and was trying to find ways to square a very difficult constituency back in South Africa. He was a very brave man.”

In the film, there is a crucial scene in which Young leaves the South Africans to a bottle of scotch and some informal chatter. I ask him if he was just ‘the guy that poured the whiskey’, eliciting a deep laugh. “Glenfiddich certainly lubricated the process,” he chuckles. “In his lectures today, Willie calls it Glenfiddich Diplomacy, because they had to behave like fellow citizens. But yes, I was the outsider. They had to know I was the outsider. I could help them, but I couldn’t do it for them.”

“I had to forget my own views, my own subjectivities. It wasn’t my show. It was theirs.” I suggest that as the driving force behind the negotiation, his reluctance to take some responsibility is misplaced.

It wasn’t my show, it was theirs. It was their country, their problem, and they’ve got to resolve it. I was a signpost, a helper, a creator of space.

But Young is adamant. “It was their country, their problem, and they’ve got to resolve it. I was a signpost, a helper, a creator of space. I was there to keep the dialogue going and build a consensus as it went on. I only had to negotiate each player, each point of the agenda.”

In contrast, Young describes the efforts of Middle East envoy Tony Blair to stabilise tension in the volatile region as “flotsam on a stream.” He is quick to explain the difference between him and the former Prime Minister.

“I don’t need to be visible to get out of bed. Instead I’ve got to be able to make something happen. I don’t have to have people pointing cameras at me. It’s not modesty, I just don’t work like that. In life, you can make things happen without standing on the mountain waving a flag. In delicate issues, you need to take people away from the theatre, away from the hurly-burly, the public grandstanding, and just make them behave as ordinary human beings around an agenda.”

Young is evidently a man of cutting intellect and supreme inter-personal skills. He talks of “engagement” and “permutations”, “elephant traps” and “possibilities”, “different thought processes to push the envelope.” Our interview is conducted in a busy office, and everyone wants a piece of this esteemed York graduate, but he talks with complete focus on me and my questions. It is easy to imagine him making men like Mbeki and Esterhuyse engage with the task in hand.

Young’s story begins at York where, as a member of Vanbrugh college, he graduated in 1972 with a degree from the Politics Department. He is absolute about the importance of his time here and the impact it had on his later work: “York was transformational for me. This place taught me how to think and challenge myself and challenge my assumptions. It helped me sort out some of the wheat from the chaff, taught me to think, and to be more tolerant,” he explains.

Young is the son of farmers and miners in Northumbria, a family he describes as “not poor but not rich. We were political, active in the local Tory party,” a political leaning he would come to break from.

Thabo Mbeki

Thabo Mbeki

Upon graduation, Young entered into Conservative Research, a Tory party think tank. There he worked alongside people who would become key Tory figures, such as Michael Portillo, and Chris Paton, in what Young describes as “a fairly rarified intellectually-stimulating place, with a direct impact on the political process.”

Young advised 10 Downing Street on foreign issues such as Cyprus, Rhodesia and the Middle East, before lending support to Prime Minister Edward Heath during the mining strikes and the three-day week talks.

His relationship with Number 10 changed dramatically when Margaret Thatcher arrived. “I felt I couldn’t serve her. I didn’t want to serve her,” Young says.

“She was an extraordinary woman. But it was amazing, she’d say ‘Michael, you can’t deal with him! He’s an enemy! He’s a communist!’,” he recalls, whispering to me to capture his incredulity at her opinions.

“It was black-white, good-bad, no shades of grey. You’re with me or you’re not. And that’s something York taught me I couldn’t live with. I didn’t see the world that way,” he admits. “That doesn’t work. You need to bring people with you and compromise. She was dangerous, and so I resigned.”

The irony is that in leaving a career in public service, and joining a private enterprise, Young would end up achieving far greater things for the world than he would ever have under Thatcher’s direction.

Young would be employed by Gold Fields, who saw the benefit of his political experience and foreign office knowledge to their business in South Africa.

I ask him about the disparity between his own political views and those of his new employers: “They took a risk, for sure, but I was a bright young thing with certain reputations around the place. I was fiesty enough to cause them to think, and that was my function. My job was to think thoughts that they would not naturally think. Pull some curtains back and say ‘Have you thought about this’. I thought, ‘Let me see if I can change this company’s culture.’”

One such curtain-opening would be his agreement to meet with the leaders of the ANC, whose apartheid protests and bombings were destabilising Gold Field’s business areas.

Young laughs as he recalls his disclosure to Gold Field’s Chairman, Rudolph Agnew, that he intended to meet with Mbeki. “I told Agnew that I was going to meet the ANC and he sort of crossed himself, chewed some garlic, you know. ‘Well, if you must’”, Young mutters in imitation. At the time, most of the Western world saw the ANC, much like the IRA during the 1980s and Hezbollah today, as a group of destabilising terrorists, and not trustworthy statesmen.

I’ve worked with a lot of political people in my life, but Mbeki was outstanding. In a class of his own, and I’m not easily impressed. He is without doubt a giant.

Ultimately, he admits with great respect, Agnew took a major risk in allowing the talks to take place, funding them through “research and development” accounts, and keeping them a secret from the board. Young, however, knew that he was dispensable and deniable if the talks were leaked.

Distancing himself further from his company’s outlook, during the times of the discussions Young was politically active with the Liberal Democrats, feeling “it was important to fight Thatcher.”

“Agnew almost had a cadenza when I told him,” Young recollects with a smile. “He thought it was the height of impudence when he found out he was fighting Willy Whitelaw in Penrith and the Borders.” Young would fight the 1983 General Election in Penrith, and then a by-election a month later, a narrowly failed to win a seat at Westminster, reducing a Tory majority from 15,000 to only 500.

The top-secret nature of his work with the South Africans, coupled with the right-wing reputation of Gold Fields, would leave him compromised at times during his work in liberal political circles.

“I was selected as the Lib Dem Parliamentary candidate on the Isle of Wight, and a challenger was agitating against me saying ‘You picked this man who works for this racist company in the City, beating up the blacks!’, and the paradox was that I was busting a gut on the ground trying to sort it all out!”

After the discussions in Somerset came to an end, and the move to dismantle the apartheid machine began, Young was not engaged with South Africa until recently, choosing instead to set up his own consultancy firm and stay out of any limelight: “Nobody knew what I had done,” he admits.
“I used to see Mbeki from time to time and talk confidentially. But until [current South African President] Jacob Zuma asked me to give opinions, I didn’t have a work input after the talks concluded.

“JZ knows I am not agnostic or hostile,” Young says, referring to President Zuma by his initials. “I’m a friend, but that I will bring a perspective to him frankly, that will be well-intended, and it’s his choice to listen.”

“I am still doing quite a lot with the current government, on issues to take that country forward. I am engaged and enjoying it.”

I ask him if he could be of use in other areas where political conflict is destroying societies. “Who is going to pay me? Most of this stuff is pro boon, it’s stuff you do because you want to do it.

“It sounds a bit ‘grand’,” he pauses, “but I did it because I thought I could make a difference”.

Young certainly did that. As my time with him comes to a close, I ask him of his sense of achievement when he sees South African today.

“I feel utterly privileged. It’s not false modesty to say that I was a lucky guy. I have some skill sets, sure, and York was very helpful in that, but it couldn’t have been anyone. You’ve got to be in the right place, with the skills, hustling. But it was an amazing experience. And if I do nothing else in my life, I will at least feel like have done something”

In politics as in life, modesty goes a long way. M

One comment

  1. Fascinating article, more of this please Nouse!

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